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New language for nonviolence — a conversation with Tim Gee

Tim Gee, © Justin Tallis.

Any activist who stays an activist long enough must confront the question of effectiveness. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Of course, such a maxim is only useful to those willing to recognize when they are just hacking away among the thousand. Most activists would rather think of themselves as the ones striking at the root.

In recent years, however, a growing body of literature has emerged to challenge stubborn perceptions about how change is made — each with its own unique insight. With Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen demonstrate that mass participation is everything. In Join The Club, Tina Rosenberg makes a case for peer pressure. John Jackson and Steve Crawshaw show the importance of humor and creativity in Small Acts of Resistance. And smartMeme co-founders Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning explain why story-telling is an integral component to organizing in Re:Imagining Change.

The latest of these is a book by British activist Tim Gee called Counterpower: Making Change Happen. In the introduction, Gee says, “This book began as an inquiry into how campaigning might be more effective.” But as he dove into the archives — specifically the Working Class Movement Library near Manchester with memorabilia dating back to the 1790s — Gee noticed that “all the successful campaigns appeared to have followed a fairly similar path.” The one thing missing from a lot of the writings on these campaigns, however, was an understanding of power as coming from the “have-nots.”

For students of Gene Sharp and other thinkers on strategic nonviolence, this may not seem like a particularly new revelation. But Gee is from a newer generation of activists baptized in the global justice movement. He cut his teeth opposing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars with student groups before moving on to fighting climate change with Britain’s anarchist-guided Camp for Climate Action.

It is this background that not only informs his unique perspective but also makes the history of resistance and the strategy behind it accessible to a whole new audience. And not a minute too soon; the Occupy movement began the same week Counterpower was released.

I recently spoke with Gee about his use of an old and largely forgotten term, whether the climate movement can win, and how true democracy exists within movements and the spaces they create.

Click to buy Tim Gee’s Counterpower, published by New Internationalist Books

Did you anticipate the Occupy movement in any way when you were completing Counterpower? And what was the effect of the release coinciding with Occupy London’s launch?

The book finishes with the Indignados. The last lines of the book were, “I hope you will be part of the next chapter.” And then before it was published this wonderful, though flawed, mass movement did just that. The story of the tour became interlinked with Occupy. I was visiting different cities and their Occupy camps. It was quite useful. It was a great excuse to meet people who were doing great stuff and discuss, debate and run workshops. I didn’t see all of the ingredients of a successful campaign in Occupy, but it was still such an exciting outburst of energy and anger that it was a thrill to be a part of.

That kind of mass sustained action had been absent from American activism for quite some time. But in other parts of the world, such as Europe and the U.K., it doesn’t seem quite so uncommon. Would you agree?

The grass is always greener. The sense that I got in the U.S. was that the radical movement was very wise and got it — perhaps proportionately small to the population at large — but people engaged in it seem to be doing something that we haven’t managed to do properly here in Britain, which is to turn the movement from media stunts and city center occupations to actual frontline solidarity with affected communities. All of the Occupy activists I met in the States were telling me about it, while at the same time saying how exhausting it was and how things looked better in Britain.

Someone I know once said, “The trouble with British NGOs is that they engage in great moments instead of great movements, which start small and take a long time.” And I think he was spot on. That was someone who was becoming disillusioned with mainstream British NGOs at the time and then became one of the key organizers within Occupy London. So that was an interesting trajectory to follow.

Tell us about your background and what led you to become so interested people power.

I come from a political family. I come from a Quaker family. So being around peace demonstrations and nonviolence is always something that’s been there. But I was never particularly interested in it until I was about 15 or 16 and I was at a Quaker summer school for teenagers. Peter Tatchell — better known in U.K. than U.S. as a high profile gay rights activist — spoke about the civil disobedience that he had been involved with, which was to get rid of Section 28, a horrible piece of homophobic legislation that said you couldn’t talk about homosexuality as if it was normal within schools. So I got involved in the very tail end of that campaign and I’d had some homophobic bullying at school. It was personal.

The campaign eventually won. It had absolutely nothing to do with my involvement, but it was an early reminder that change can happen through people power. If you look at that change in legislation and values in the ongoing struggle for homosexual equality, that’s a nice thing to remind ourselves of, especially as I went from then into the antiwar movement and School Students Against the War. I was also very involved in Climate Camp, including some relatively confrontational stuff. I got my arm broken by some cops in Copenhagen and got arrested whilst I was writing the book at Climate Camp, which didn’t help with the writing.

Especially with the war and climate change we faced a lot of setbacks. I wanted to look backwards at some of the campaigns that had been successful. I wrote in the introduction about the Working Class Movement Library, of which my stepdad was the librarian for the last 20 years. So I knew where to get these stories. In the socialist movement that my parents are more associated with, particularly the trade union movement, people are told stories in a structured way, of the movement and what’s gone before. In the non-hierarchical movement that I’m more a part of, that’s not there unless someone decides that they’re going to play that role. So that’s the role I decided to play.

Why do you use the term “counterpower” as opposed to nonviolence, nonviolent action, civil resistance or any of the many other terms that have been used to describe the type of power average people possess?

In lots of languages there is a word for struggle from below, and in English there isn’t really. I mentioned a few attempts at it in the introduction, such as black power, worker power and sisterhood is powerful, and all of these ideas. But that word counterpower is there. It’s there in the anarchist discourse. If we want reformist ends then we have to engage in revolutionary tactics. That’s why I used a word from the revolutionary discourse, even though, when I started out, my only intention was to ask how we can win campaigns. There’s a lot more I could have said about dual power and power vacuums and, the more I read, the more convinced I get that it’s when countries get to a stage of power vacuums with no one in control that the big transitions happen. I’m more and more interested in how we can extend those periods of power vacuums. I wish I had written more about that.

Given your background as a Quaker, it’s surprising you don’t use the word “nonviolence” much in the book. Is there a reason for that?

There were a few intentional reasons for that. The first is that I knew what I had been brought up to believe, and I only wanted to argue things that I could back up rather than stuff I just had a hunch about. Secondly, nonviolence in itself is not a form of power or counterpower. It’s just a thing. By itself, it’s not nonviolent resistance or nonviolent coercion from below or nonviolent counterpower. So that’s why I spent two chapters talking about counterpower before talking about nonviolence. And then I tried to explain why nonviolence is superior to violence, and I speak about that especially in the conclusion.

I also didn’t want to gloss over the fact that violence can be successful. But I wanted to show that violence leads to a different kind of social change than nonviolence, one in which power is a lot more dispersed. For all of those reasons I wanted to show pragmatic and practical reasons for nonviolence, rather than just my own morality that I’d been brought up with about nonviolence, which wouldn’t necessarily convince anyone.

What types of counterpower do you see most in effective campaigns?

Every book I read about theories of power seemed to argue pretty much the same thing. They seemed to argue that there were three kinds of power and they mostly had fairly long names for them. So I decided to simplify that and use the shortest or most obvious words I could find. One form of power is idea power, which is the ability to persuade someone of something through the media or discussions or songs. Another kind is economic power, which is the ability to pay someone to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. And the third one is physical power or coercion, the ability to force someone to do something. What I’m interested in is power from below, counterpower. I think all of these can be turned on their heads. Idea counterpower, economic counterpower and physical counterpower.

You identify four stages of a successful campaign: consciousness, coordination, confrontation and consolidation. But you also discuss stages that other theorists and organizers have identified. What did you learn from them in developing your own four stages?

Almost everything in the book is a synthesis of stuff that’s already out there, because one of my objectives was to write in as simple a way as possible, to get it out to activists who wouldn’t necessarily find the really specialist stuff. As I see it, I don’t contradict those other theories. The book lays out a series of stages which seems to be there in all past campaigns. The most quoted stage theory of all, which isn’t really a stage theory, is Gandhi’s “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

On that note, you observe, “The power to ignore movements is possibly the most important and least understood aspect of idea power.” As an example of where this is the case you cite the U.S. climate movement.

In 2009, at least, it did feel like the global climate movement was getting to a stage where it couldn’t be ignored. It was getting beyond that. It was on the front pages of all of the newspapers. We would have tens of thousands on the streets, the biggest climate demonstrations the world had ever seen, which haven’t been repeated since. We had an ability to move from that first stage of consciousness raising into that second stage of coordinating a mass movement beyond the NGOs, into the grassroots. And then there were these wonderful climate actions that took place. But the movement as a whole isn’t getting to the third stage, the confrontation stage. And by that I mean a mass withdrawal of consent large enough to nonviolently coerce the powers that be into giving enough concessions to solve the problem. We focused too much attention on Copenhagen. Even people who knew that the Copenhagen negotiations were incapable of coming up with an answer able to deal with the problem still focused their attention on it, myself included. We were still in that asking-nicely stage, rather than the withdrawal of consent.

The other problem we face in the climate movement is that we’ve been quite good at idea counterpower — at convincing lots of people of the problem — although that’s now being fought back against. We’ve been relatively good at physical counterpower; we’ve had some brilliant, although relatively diffuse actions and blockades. But we’ve not even touched economic counterpower. The people that can close down a coal-fired power station are the workers inside it. I don’t know if it’s the same in the United States, but people would offer the same criticism of the Climate Camp movement in the U.K. Our engagement of the workers in the places we were targeting would be last minute and slapdash if it was anything.

There were some examples of building solidarity with workers. There was an occupation at a wind turbine factory when it got closed down. It’s an interesting case, because prior to it being closed down, it wasn’t a strongly unionized workplace. That was one action at one factory that the U.K. climate movement actually managed. If we reengage with that next time, and we get to a point of being able to move from movement building to confrontation, then we’ll be in a better position.

How do you think that can be done? The environment has long been pitted against the economy as a means of keeping the working class uninterested.

We’re actually doing relatively well, because we started again and we started with a different tack. Now the movement is more about transformation and challenging the economic system. The climate stuff has been folded into this bigger narrative. Through Occupy and other things we’ve been building a first stage and we’re moving into a second stage with the house occupations and the broad grassroots movement that’s being built at the moment. Wider systemic struggle has the ability to solve climate problems if it manages to see it through in a way that a climate movement based entirely around climate as the main thing proved unable to do.

A similarity that I sometimes like to draw with the anti-slavery movement in the U.K. — which is obviously only part of the global anti-slavery movement — is that activists didn’t get the first legislation against slavery through the British Parliament until I think it was 1834. They’d been plugging away at it, but before they could do it, they had to win changes to the Parliament itself. They had to win the reform act of 1832. At least for a few years, many people in the anti-slavery movement, not all of them, put their attention toward redistributing power through another route, which was the vote. Only then could they begin chipping away at slavery. That’s what we’re trying to do with the climate movement. We’re trying to redistribute power, and we’re going through a different route at the moment. Now it’s jobs and public services. If we manage to chip away at the power of the 1 percent, who are also the same people screwing with the planet, then we can reengage with climate issues on the frontline as part of this bigger campaign. But we’re doing okay. I’m more optimistic than most.

One of the major challenges facing practitioners of this kind of work is corporate power. Gene Sharp has very humbly said that he leaves that work to the next generation to figure out. Can we adapt the principles of fighting authoritarian regimes to fighting corporations?

A lot can be pulled across from anti-dictatorship struggles to anti-corporate struggles. A great number of the things we think of as dictatorships have the illusion of democracy and claimed to be democratic. The Burmese regime has claimed it’s moving toward multi-party democracy for the last 20 years, and the Soviet Union called itself a democracy, although not a multiparty one. From the study I’ve managed to do so far, I find that all forms of hierarchical organization, from a country to maybe even patriarchy, have these three pillars of economic power, physical power and idea power. If we chip away at them, that can contribute to weakening any form of regime.

And what about movements against dictators that become capitalist so-called democracies and don’t improve things too much? That certainly does happen. But a revolution isn’t just an event, it’s an ongoing process. The definition of democracy is when people have power, and they can only have power through counterpower, so I suppose the struggle always needs to continue. It’s not in the regime that we find democracy, but in the movement, those beautiful moments of power vacuums when people are able to think for themselves. I was reading Peter Popham’s autobiography of Aung Sang Suu Kyi today, and it was talking about the power vacuum that happened in 1988 and how it coincided with people thinking freely and debating freely for the first time in many years, just as has happened in Egypt. Freedom and democracy come from the spaces we create inside the struggle, and that has to go on forever. There’s not a perfect end that we’re working toward, just possibilities of extending those moments of freedom and people power.

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